“And maybe only thought can save me, I’m afraid of passion,” writes Brazilian author Clarice Lispector in her 1964 novel, The Passion According to G. H. Had Jeon Jungkook read this book, it’s unlikely that this would be among his favorite quotes. The singer, dancer, songwriter, and producer does not shrink from passion. Instead, a passionless life is what he fears: “I’d rather die than to live without passion,” he says when asked about his life motto. He was 15-years-old at the time(Arirang K-pop, 2013).
Back then, BTS (the music group he is a part of) hadn’t achieved even half of what they would in the upcoming years (sold out stadium tours, charting records all over the world, the Order of Cultural Merit in Korea, just to name a few things). Now, as Jeon turns 24 years old (25 in Korean age), his passion—or, his passion for passion—seems not to have changed.
In The Passion According to G. H., the passion that Lispector hints at is not a passion for something or someone. It’s the spark within, the mystical experience through which one understands one’s self and the world beyond the physical and the systematic. Plato and Socrates described it as theia mania (crazy wisdom). In her emblematic novel, Lispector narrates an episode of a woman having an epiphany after finding a cockroach in her apartment. This character verges on madness, but through madness, she understands life in a different way from others.
As for passion in the sense of purpose and intensity, it may be directed toward something, but only if it already exists per se. The music of BTS has followed a similar approach before: not exactly with passion, but with love, in the album trilogy Love Yourself (2017-2018). Passion can be a stage of love or a way to it. In that sense, it’s telling that BTS’ Love Yourself trilogy opens with the dreamy “Euphoria” (2018), a song that the passionate Jeon sings alone.
“Euphoria” is the beginning of a journey towards finding self-love. The lyrics can pass as merely romantic; however, they speak of the sensation of someone who enters a new stage of a soul journey: “The surrounding becomes more and more transparent / I hear the ocean from far away / walk across the dream over the forest / and go towards that place as it gets clearer” (translation by Doolset, 2018).
“Euphoria” is about losing yourself in a dream to find something else. Through Jeon’s vocal interpretation, the situation comes across as joyful and thrilling. Through Lispector’s writing, however, the feeling is fear. “I’m so frightened that I shall be able to accept the notion that I have lost myself only if I imagine that someone is holding my hand”, Lispector writes. “Take my hands now, you are the cause of my euphoria,” Jeon sings.
Fear and excitement can be two sides of the same coin, two possible reactions to the experience of reaching a new place inside oneself. Jeon represents excitement. As Nicholson writes in Plato’s Phaedrus, through theia mania we have our “highest happiness”. In “Euphoria”, Jeon is the one offering his hand to his passion. He’s not scared. He wants to surrender to the feeling.
Through euphoria, he accesses feelings that resonate with his core being. It’s a new state, but it’s also a familiar one. Enthusiasm, after all, “is a forgetting, but one whose essence is remembering” (Gundert, in Nicholson, 1999). Jeon’s unapologetic passion in “Euphoria” is fundamental to kick BTS’ journey towards self-love, and later, the Map of the Soul (the album sequence that comes after BTS’s Love Yourself trilogy). No wonder someone like Jeon Jungkook would give life to a song like “Euphoria”: passion is, just like the lyrics say, “a priori inside” of him.
A mortal body is sometimes too fragile to contain so much intensity. “I know that at one and the same time I want and don’t want to hold myself back anymore,” Lispector writes. “I’m also passionate and ambitious to the point where sometimes my body can’t take it,” Jeon says (Rowley, 2020). Is passion self-destructive? Is a passionate life a consuming one? How far can one go when driven by passion? One can only know by taking chances, and to take chances one must have no fear.
Seizing passion is a risk. It’s a risk Jeon Jungkook decided to take from very early on. Back in 2011, his performance in the singing competition Superstar K3 caught the attention of big and established music labels in Korea. Nevertheless, he chose a small company, then called Big Hit Entertainment. More than guarantees, he was guided by the potential, and his admiration for the underground hip-hop artist Rap Monster (now RM), who had just joined the same label. It is the type of choice made by people for whom passion is their driving force.
Betting on something that might never work is scary, but failure is an acceptable risk if it comes with the chance to be with something that excites you so much—or, perhaps, the chance to become such a thing. Jeon showed impressive, visionary behavior for someone who was but a teenager. His bold choice was only the tip of what we’d see from him.
Together with BTS, he would conquer things until then unimaginable for himself. “Creation isn’t imagination, it’s running the huge risk of coming face to face with reality,” Lispector writes. Just as scary as putting all your passion into a vision that might never come true, is the possibility of it coming true. If it does, and you still don’t want to stop, then what’s next? There’s nothing left to do but to stretch even further, work even harder, put even more passion into what you do. “(…) it’s not like we’re being forced to try harder; it’s just my personal ambition,” Jeon says in an interview for Weverse Magazine (Kang, 2021). “I think I can do better.”
In a scene from Jun-Soo Park’s documentary Break the Silence (2020), BTS members j-hope and SUGA compare Jeon’s approach on performance with j-hope’s. While both are magnificent dancers and energetic performers on stage, j-hope manages energy in a way that won’t exhaust him throughout a long tour. Jeon, on another side, gives all of himself in every concert, even if at the expense of his health. He “dances until his body breaks,” j-hope says.
Analyzing both styles, SUGA uses the metaphor of a camel and a horse. A camel walks slower but reaches the same place as a horse without getting as tired. It’s a clever metaphor, and it’s true; but to individuals like Jeon, passion is the fuel, yes, but also the destination.
If his passion is the source of joy for more people besides himself, that’s an extra reason to put it all in force. “We may perform a song a lot of times, but the fans come to the show to see that one time,” j-hope says, explaining why he empathizes with Jeon despite being different. “A camel moves consistently, but it collapses consistently too,” SUGA says. Being the horse has its pros and cons.
“The temptation of pleasure. The temptation is to eat directly from the source. (…) And the punishment is no longer wanting to stop eating, and eating. (…) I would never rest again: I had stolen the hunting horse of a king of joy.”— The Passion According to G. H
Passion in one’s work can also be a means to challenge the status quo. “If I raised the alarm at being alive, voiceless and hard they would drag me away since they drag away those who depart the possible world, the exceptional being is dragged away, the screaming being,” Lispector writes. Jeon is a member of a group whose drive and passion are at times belittled, while the ordinary and privileged sometimes garner praise in performances that are less passionate.
As the youngest member of BTS, Jeon had to learn performance techniques quickly. “24, It feels as if I became an adult quicker than anyone / My life has been a movie all the time / I ran to where the sun rises, every single night / It feels like maybe I’ve been to someone’s tomorrow / (…) Can I someday finna find my time?” he sings in “My Time” (2020) (Doolset, 2020), which he co-wrote. Caught between different timelines, Jeon’s choice is to embrace all of them at once until he finds his own. “I’m a concomitant being: I gather in myself time past, the present and the future, the time that pulses in the tick-tock of the clocks,” Lispector writes, understanding.
In a passionate life, there is a lot to manage in terms of time, energy, and expectations. However, that’s hardly something that would discourage the passionate individual. Passion is not just the thing driving artists toward reward, it is the reward itself. Not everyone will be able to keep up, but they don’t have to. They can walk at their own pace. “Even if our steps might be in different frequencies, I’d like to walk on this path with you” (Doolset, 2020), Jeon sings in “Still With You” (2020), a song he co-wrote and co-produced.
As The Passion According to G. H. and Jeon’s life testify, there’s a reason why some people are afraid of passion, whether they’re aware of it or not: once passion is unlocked, there’s no going back.
“Scream”, I repeated uselessly with a sigh of deep quietude. (…) But if I screamed even once, I might never again be able to stop.”— The passion according to G. H.
Jeon Jungkook started “screaming”, if you will, at a young age. Perhaps only death itself can put an end to it. That is; the death of the physical body over the death of passion, as BTS sings in “Black Swan” (2020): “If this can no longer make my heart flutter / Perhaps, this will be how I die once” (Doolset, 2020). These are ambitious mottos for one to impose on oneself, but Jeon is determined. “Couldn’t you be a little softer on yourself?” Jeon was once asked (Kang, 2021). “No”, he answered.
Arirang K-pop. [Pops in Seoul] BTS(방탄소년단), We Are Bulletproof PT. 2 _ Interview. 4 August 2013.
Doolset. Euphoria. 1 June 2018.
Doolset. Black Swan. 17 January 2020.
Doolset. 시차 (My Time). 21 February 2020
Doolset. Still With You (Jungkook). 4 June 2020.
Kang, Myungseok. INTERVIEW: Jung Kook: “I think we’d better not ever stop”. Weverse Magazine. 26 July 2021.
Lispector, Clarice. The Passion According to G. H. Rocco. 1964.
Nicholson, Graeme. Plato’s Phaedrus: The Philosophy of Love. Purdue University Press. 1999.
Rowley, Glenn. BTS Talks Partnering With Hyundai For New Song ‘Ioniq: I’m On It’: ‘It Was a Refreshing Experience‘. Billboard. 31 August 2020.